Anne had been born and raised in Bethlehem. When the time came was married to Joachim, a pious Jew of means from Nazareth. The two settled down into a happy marriage, devoutly practicing their faith, carving out a respectable place in their community.
Years passed like this; then the gossip started. At first, whispers among the women as Anne made her way to the well. Month after month, still slim like a willow, no sign of a child swelling within her. Then whispers turned to murmuring, as yearly the couple came to the Temple, Joachim with the men, Anne with the women, and no child between them.
The husband and wife heard the talk of course, but they kept their faith in the Lord and kept their heads held high and kept their eyes from betraying the wounds in their hearts. People’s talk was fleeting. The Word of the Lord was forever. And then one day, the talk could no longer be endured.
There is Joaquim, making his way to the Temple, his mind never far from that aching child-shaped hole in his heart. He recognizes an old friend, raises his hand in greeting. The friend’s son is with him, and Joaquim can feel tightening in his chest, loss rising in his throat. His gaze lingers on the boy, seeing but not seeing him, the actual child overlaid with all Joaquim’s longing for his imagined child. He should have a son the same age as this boy, and a number of them behind!
As always, Joachim searched his heart. Childlessness was a reproach from God, everyone knew. But try as he might, Joachim could never identify the cause for such punishment. He and Anne had poured over their lives, pouring out their hearts, pouring out their tears, trying to discern the cause for God’s anger. They rooted out and corrected all the vices they could name, but decades and decades had passed, and still they remained barren.
Joachim thought himself mostly resigned to it now. He told himself that his frequent sacrifices brought to the Temple were purely done out of devotion to God, and not as chatat, atonement for some unknown sin. But as his eyes rested on the son of his old friend, Joachim felt the familiar sharp pain in his heart again. Feeling raw and deeply weary, Joachim approached one of the temple priests with his offering, a vessel filled with flour Anne had carefully ground just that morning.
At first, Joachim didn’t understand what the priest was saying. The man folded his arms and shook his head firmly, refusing to take Joachim’s offering. Joachim thrust the flour toward the priest again, briefly picturing Anne pounding out the flour, sadly smiling as she said that with just the two of them, it was simple to make their daily flour, and a portion for the Lord as well. Again the priest shook his head and refused to look at either Joachim or the offering.
Head still turned, the priest said, “You cannot offer this- you have not yet raised up a seed in Israel” With that, he walked away, leaving Joachim with an arm still outstretched, barren hands still offering flour milled by barren hands.
Anne wasn’t worried, exactly. At first, she had been confused, then irritated, then resigned to a dull anger and acceptance. But worry didn’t factor in. Her husband had disappeared before. A man with a deep love of God’s creation, it wasn’t terribly unusual for him to go check his flocks and be gone for several days, communing with the Lord among the livestock and the wilderness. Joachim had the sort of heart that rarely found rest in the settlement of a village. But this, this stretch was different. It was longer, for one thing. Weeks and weeks had passed. In that time, tales had reached her, of her husband being humiliated in the Temple, of him insisting on seeing the census, insisting that he was not the only righteous, childless man in Israel, of seeing the results and fleeing to the mountains. But a day ago a cousin had come to her, bearing news of a caravan that had met up with a man in the hills, who had declared that he was airing his grievances with God and wasn’t done yet, and wasn’t eating or drinking until his prayer was answered. And with that news, Anna began to worry.
She worried enough to snap at her maid-servant, accusing the woman of trying to curse her. The maid servant looked at Anna with angry eyes and said, “Why would I bother cursing you? God’s already taken care of that.” Taking a cue from her husband, Anna stormed from the house and sought solace outdoors.
Out of breath and blinking in the gathering twilight, Anna stopped under a laurel. Exhaling slowly, she took a look around. It was getting dark. She should head back. Even the birds were roosting for the night, she noted as she spotted a sparrow settling on its nest.
A nest, Anna saw, that was full of fat babies, nearly large enough to fledge. Something about that sight, of a family of sparrows settling in for the night undid Anna. It undid a huge knot that had been tangled up inside her and it came out of her in a jumble of words.
“What good am I to you, God?” she wailed, grief flooding over her. “I’m not worth a sparrow, for sparrows are fruitful for you. I’m not worth a boar or a bear, for they are fruitful for you. I’m not even worth the dust beneath my feet because from that dust comes fruit and grain. Worthless. I’m worthless.”
Whether the visitor arrived in a flash or a slow fade, Anna didn’t know. Face buried in her hands, crumpled up in the dust under that laurel tree, Anna wept alone. And then, there was a decided sense of not being alone. Anna lifted her head suddenly, on alert for a predator from the wilderness. Instead, there was a being made of light, in front of her.
“Anna, Anna,” the being said, “the Lord has heard your prayer, and you shall conceive, and shall bring forth; and your seed shall be spoken of in all the world.”
With her whole heart, Anna responded, “As the Lord my God lives, if I beget either male or female, I will bring it as a gift to the Lord my God; and it shall minister to Him in holy things all the days of its life.”
Two more beings joined the first, light so bright it should have blinded, but Anna’s eyes never strained. “Behold, Joachim your husband is coming with his flocks,” the two beings said in unison. “For an angel of the Lord went down to him, saying: Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God has heard your prayer. Go down hence; for, behold, your wife Anna shall conceive.”
Anna was on her feet even before the beings were done speaking. Running as fast as she could down rocky roads, she reached the gate to the village, straining to see into the darkness. Where was he? Where was he?
And then she saw him, her beloved husband, returning from his self-imposed exile. Anna ran to meet him and hugged him tightly. One look on her husband’s face and Anna knew the visitors had spoken truthfully. Joachim had seen them too, had heard their happy news. They were going to have a child!
Mary, Anne thought to herself as she and Joachim walked back home together. If the child is a girl, her name will be Mary.